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Ten Decades of the Art of Film

For 99 of its 100 years, the CMA has also presented pictures that move
John Ewing, Curator of Film
June 15, 2016

The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German animated movie seems to have been the first feature film shown at the museum, in 1936.

The motion picture industry is only 21 years older than the Cleveland Museum of Art. But the fledgling institution wasted little time before welcoming the new art form known as “the movies.” A look back through the earliest copies of the Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art (the progenitor of the museum's current magazine) reveals that movies were shown at the museum as early as 1917.

In the beginning, though, motion pictures weren’t necessarily thought of as art. The first films were presented as part of the museum’s weekly “Entertainments for Young People,” organized by the Education Department. The June/July 1918 Bulletin describes an “entertainment” as “a talk on some interesting topic, sometimes illustrated by lantern-slides and usually followed by an appropriate motion picture.” The Bulletin rarely mentioned the titles of movies that were shown, but when it did, they were educational shorts.

The art of film gained more of a foothold at the museum after Mrs. Chester C. Bolton donated a sound projector in 1935. (All movies shown up to that time had apparently been silent.) Though the first true film series to use this new machine was still two years away (this was the Great Depression, and money for installation of the equipment and film rentals had to be raised), the gift sparked a series of meetings, courses, and guest speakers that would pave the way for the museum’s embrace of cinema as a new art form.

“During the spring months, many individual conferences were held with leading spirits in the Cleveland motion picture world,” wrote then CMA curator of education Thomas Munro in the October 1936 Bulletin. His article “Plans for Motion Picture Activities” described one large April gathering where “representatives of the Cinema Club, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Parent-Teacher Association, the Recreation League, the Public Schools of Cleveland and vicinity, the Junior League, Hawken School, and other organizations” all weighed in on the future of movies at the museum. Even the Cleveland Plain Dealer covered this confab. Around this same time the museum offered lectures and courses with titles such as “The Motion Picture as an Art,” “Art Standards in the Motion Picture,” “How to Appreciate Motion Pictures,” and “Motion Pictures: The Art and Its Problems.” In January 1936, East Coast cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, one of the country’s foremost champions of popular culture, spoke on “The Seven Lively Arts” (film, comics, jazz, et al.), also the title of his most famous book.


John Ewing New film guy in 1988

All of this activity set the stage for the cinema’s “coming out” at the high-culture debutante ball. But this initiative might have also constituted a preemptive defense of the once disreputable, “lowbrow” medium against any who thought that movies would sully the standing of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the end the tactic worked, and film breached the fortress of fine arts with little or no discernible dissent. By the fall of 1937, the museum was presenting the five-part program “The History of the Film,” the first of a number of series circulated by the Museum of Modern Art’s newly established Department of Film. CMA director William Milliken informed Mrs. Bolton of the “great success” of this “first series of our moving picture programs,” noting that people had to be turned away from most of the screenings.

For the next five decades, the museum film program operated on two parallel tracks, with “adult” film screenings on selected Wednesday nights, Friday nights, or Sunday afternoons, and “Films for Young People” on most Saturdays during the school year. The adult films were grouped into thematic series that often ran for an entire academic year (e.g., “Musicals and Comedies of the 1930s,” “Recent Films from Eastern Europe,” “Contemporary German Film,” “The Spirit of Surrealism”). The young people’s films were more free-form, with offerings ranging from cartoons, nature films, and travelogues to comedies, musicals, and adventure films, many of them adaptations of famous works of literature. (Even Hamlet was shown to children in 1972!)

William E. Ward was the first “Supervisor of Motion Pictures” listed in the Bulletin. He held the post from 1951 to 1956. His successor, Edward F. Henning, rose from Supervisor of Saturday Entertainments in the Education Department in 1952 to Chief Curator of Modern Art. He programmed films from 1956 until he retired in the mid-1980s. When I succeeded him in 1986 (my title was Coordinator of Film Programs), I became the first person hired by the Cleveland Museum of Art to do nothing but manage the motion pictures series.

Beyond personnel, there have been other changes over the decades: in the museum division housing the film program (Education, Curatorial, Performing Arts); in screening locations (1916 auditorium, Gartner Auditorium, CWRU’s Strosacker Auditorium, Morley Lecture Hall); in film gauges and formats (16mm, 35mm, digital); and in the number of movies shown. But the overarching mission of the CMA film program has remained surprisingly steadfast. “The museum can render a distinctive service to the community through presenting certain kinds of films which are rarely or never shown in Cleveland by the commercial theaters,” wrote Thomas Munro in 1936. “These include foreign films of high quality but limited box-office appeal; educational films on artistic, historical, and scientific subjects which are now being made by several universities and foundations; amateur films which experiment with new types of technique, photography, and dramatization, such as the abstract and color films; and a few commercially made films of excellent quality, no longer being shown in the theaters.” Eighty years later, this same robust mix of classic and contemporary, foreign and domestic, fiction and nonfiction, narrative and experimental lights up the CMA screen.  



Film Program Firsts 
(and Other Milestones)

First feature film shown at the CMA Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Germany, 1926), 1936
First non-American, non-European film Song of China (China, 1935), 1942
First summer films 1967
First “Wednesday Evening Festivals” films July 1974
First Holiday Film Festival December 1975
Notable guests Maya Deren, 1951; Mrs. Robert Flaherty, 1955; Spike Lee and Jim Brown, 2002; Pete Docter, 2003
Movie not included in 1973’s nine-film “Homage to John Ford” The Searchers
Strangest double feature Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, 1967

Cleveland Art, July/August 2016